PAC-MAN IS DEAD

By Jon Roig

Arizona Daily Wildcat

We are the first generation to grow up in an age when video games have been a part of everyday life. Yes, the days of Defender, Tempest, Dig-Dug, and Moon Patrol may be gone now; they've been replaced with newer and flashier systems. The game industry has grown immensely and games have changed tremendously over the years, but the basic concept of entertainment has always remained the same. I've been there, along with millions of other people, voting the directions it should take with every quarter I plugged into the machines.

So, it was natural that I took a great interest in the fine art of gaming č and, make no mistake č it is an art. A well-played game of Street Fighter is like an action-packed chess match, with strategy and hand-eye coordination playing equal parts in deciding the victor.

With this in mind, I set out to create a coherent strategy that could govern play of all fighting games č from Tekken to Mortal Kombat III to Street Fighter Alpha. With only "The Book of Five Rings" by legendary Japanese Zen swordsman Miyamoto Musashi to use a strategy guide, I attempted to construct such a system.

I also contacted Zach Meston, an expert on videogame strategy and author of some 25 books (published by Prima and Sandwich Islands Publishing č check the book section of your local game store or the "game" section of general bookstores.) His latest book is on Mortal Kombat III č he seemed like the perfect person to ask for help.

The interview took place via e-mail, with Zach communicating from his home in Hawaii (kinda makes you sick, doesn't it).

Mutato: So how does one become a video game strategy expert?

Zach Meston: In my case, because I have the ability to play video games well AND write well, which is a surprisingly rare skill. I got this job through a series of lucky breaks I won't bore you with, but if I didn't have the ability to thrash most games or to compose a sentence, I wouldn't have gone far. I must sadly admit that game-playing skills are more important than writing skills; take a look through any video game magazine on the market for proof.

By no means am I the best player on God's green earth; just like anyone else, there are games I'm great at and games I suck at. I'm only fair at most fighting games, for example. But I'm generally good enough to beat ANY game. Might take me a few more tries than the 14-year-old down the street, (videogame skills peak at 14, by the way), but I can do it.

M: Since fighting games like Samurai Showdown, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter now dominate the arcades, I've been trying to put together a coherent fighting strategy that works for all games. Do you think it's possible?

Z: I don't really believe there's a set group of strategies that works for a range of 2-D fighting games. Every game has its own quirks, its own feel, and that means completely different strategies. Besides, everyone has his or her own fighting style anyway; I've seen players who attack relentlessly, players who hide in the corner, and players who mix up offense and defense. No one plays fighting games the same, and thank God for it .

Fighting games ARE a very interesting phenomenon, though. In some ways, they are the most strategic video games of all. I admit to sometimes being overwhelmed by themčmost fighters these days have a minimum of four action buttons, and sometimes six. That's a hell of a lot more complex than Pac-Man, which didn't have ANY buttonsčjust a joystick. Now that I think of it, Tetris is the samečall you need is a joystick. Perhaps it explains one reason why these games were so popular with the masses?

M: Speaking of complexity, do you think that secret-moves are overrated? That's one of the main theories that I've developed in my strategy so far.

Z: I think they're getting to the point of silliness. MK3, for example. Each character has three or four special moves, four or five "Killer Kombos," several stage-specific Fatalities, two or three "regular" Fatalities, an Animality, a Friendship, a Babality ... the only people who have enough time to memorize all this crap are 12-year-olds (who regularly thrash me at the local arcade, so I'm incredibly bitter). I'm kind of in your boatčI can generally kick ass without using special moves, but it's to the point now where people think you suck if you don't do a Fatality! It's not enough to "just" beat them, you have to rip out their heart, too.

M: Do you think that a true three-dimensional game is going to make a difference in the way games are played? Why hasn't anyone created one yet?

Z: There ARE 3D fighting games, but only in terms of the graphics. Virtua Fighter, from Sega, is a game with 3D texture-mapped polygons, but it still plays much like a 2D game. The fighters always face each other, and the game presents the combatants with a side view, just like 2D games.

I've talked to programmers about "true 3D" games, and the major reason it's taking so long for them to come out is because they are a bitch to program. It takes an entirely different mindset, not to mention controllers more advanced than the 2D-oriented "joypads" most home systems have. Nintendo's upcoming Ultra 64 system has a controller that tackles the "true 3D" problem by including an analog stick and a digital control pad. It's an ugly beast, I must say.

The closest to a real 3D fighting game is a Sony PlayStation title called Battle Arena Toshinden. It's not out in the U.S. yet, but I've been playing the Japanese version for a while. Toshinden allows the players to dive and roll left and rightč"in" and "out" of the screen. But the problem is that fights often degenerate into rolling matches, where both players try to get in a cheap hit and then roll for the rest of the match so their foe can't hit them. A failed experiment, in other words.

However, you'll be happy to know that special movesčin particular, projectile moves like fireballsčaren't as prevalent in the new semi-3D fighting games (Virtua Fighter, Tekken). There's more of an emphasis on close-range fighting: punching, kicking, grabbing, and throwing. This is why I like the 3D fighters;there's more emphasis on strategy and less on who can whip out more Dragon Punches in the course of a match.

M: So, what direction do you think arcade games are going in?

Z: OK, let's see just how stupid I can make myself look (heh). I'll start by examining the present: the video game industry is in major flux, shifting from the popular 16-bit platforms (combined, the Super NES and Genesis have sold over 30 million systems) to the new, expensive ($300+) 32-bit systems. The industry has been in a slump for a few years now; sales are down, and 16-bit games don't sell at all unless promoted with a massive marketing campaign. Consumers are bored with the current stuff, but the new stuff is still too expensive for the mass market.

The present is looking kind of ugly, quite honestly. It's probably going to be until late 1996 or early '97 for a 32-bit "standard" system to sell to the Teeming Millions; most likely, it'll be the Sony PlayStation.

Now then. The future. First, we have to wonder: How much better can game systems get than they are now? The Saturn, PlayStation, etc. are already pushing the limits of what a color television (which is, remember, 1950's technology at heart) can display. Computer monitors have much better display capabilities, but they can also have price tags larger than most used cars. HDTV would be a leap in display technology, but it's looking like that won't become a reality for another four or five years.

What is the future of video games? My boring answer is: pretty much like the present, except the games will look cooler. I've been following video games since I was a toddler, and I freak out when I see how much the technology has advanced between 1977 (when the Atari 2600 was released) and 1995. In a little less than 20 years, games have gone from blocky 16-color graphics and bleepy-boopy tunes to photorealistic graphics and digital surround sound. That's like going from Edison's first B&W movies to CinemaScope and THX stereo, and it took about 100 years to do that.

Keep in mind, though, that it's always going to be the GAMEPLAY that matters in the end, no matter how pretty the graphics. Tetris was the most popular video game of the past decade (more so than Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat) not because of full-motion video or special moves, but because it was easy to learn and fun to play.

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